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I think God of War III ended things on a high note. It was a good conclusion to Kratos’ story and is a blast to play. The ending left room for a sequel which came with it a simple question. What next? Well the series would shift to a different mythology but before that, a prequel would be released. Developed by Santa Monica Studio and published Sony Computer Entertainment, God of War: Ascension was released for PlayStation 3 in March, 2013. Ascension shows what happens when Kratos decides to break his blood oath to Ares and it is the first game in the series to feature multiplayer.
Set before the events of the first God of War, in response to killing his own family, Kratos decides to break his blood oath to Ares. Angered by his decision, Ares orders three Furies to keep him in line. They imprison and torture the Spartan in an effort to make him return to his life of servitude. He eventually breaks free and continues on his quest. Ascension is yet another tale of defiance, another reason Kratos is so pissed off, another rampage, and those not on his side are simply in his way. My biggest issue with the plot is that it doesn’t develop Kratos any further and, ultimately, it retreads old ground.
Most of the gameplay in Ascension is typical God of War. You rampage through ancient Greece, slaying enemies and powering up your weapons, magic, and items. Kratos can walk, run, jump, double jump, block, evade or roll, grab and push objects, and perform a variety of attacks and chain attacks together to form combos. Where Ascension primarily differs from its predecessors is in its combat. A grapple system has been introduced. You can now grapple enemies and proceed to throw or execute them. Equipped with the Blades of Chaos, you can fill up a rage meter when attacking enemies. When the meter is full, you can unleash new moves. The meter will deplete after a short amount of time and when you take hits. I think it’s a solid mechanic because it’s the game’s way of encouraging you to strike, block, and evade effectively. Basically, the better you are, the more powerful you are. Keeping the Rage Meter full isn’t always easy. You have to be aggressive but also careful.
Coming off the previous games, I have to admit it took me some time to get used to the combat controls. Grappling in Ascension requires you to hold down a button first, you can now kick enemies, and some returning attacks are initiated a little differently. The change in controls may seem slight but when you’re used to performing attacks and combos in specific ways across a series of games, any change will be noticeable. I want to clarify that this is not a complaint, just something to be aware of. That said, I do think the grapple mechanics add a little more depth to the combat.
The Blades of Chaos is the only weapon Kratos will carry with him at all times. He can use secondary weapons but will eventually discard them and you can only have one equipped at a time. You can disarm enemies and take their weapons or find them in the environments. These include a sword, javelin or spear, club, shield, and sling. You can discard the weapons manually and doing so will stun enemies giving you the opportunity to grapple them. Using these will not fill up your Rage Meter and I found them to be unnecessary most of the time, minus a few specific scenarios. And as you upgrade the Blades of Chaos and magic, they become less useful.
All of the magic in Ascension affects the Blades of Chaos. You’ll get imbue the Blades with fire, ice, lightning, and souls. And you can switch between the elements on-the-fly. Just using the elements doesn’t drain through magic but activating certain abilities does. You’ll receive an ability early on where Kratos will slam the ground and set enemies on fire and more moves and abilities are unlocked as you upgrade the elements. You’ll get to summon a tempest of ice, unleash a swarm of souls, and channel lightning. If you fill the Rage Meter up completely, you can unleash a special attack that will instantly drain it but dish out heavy damage.
As you progress through the story, you’ll get your hands on some items that are primarily used for solving puzzles but can also be used to aid you during combat. You’ll get to use an amulet that can decay or heal objects and structures. In other words, you use it to either deconstruct or repair things. During combat, you can use it to temporarily slow down enemies. Another item you receive is a stone that lets Kratos create a clone of himself. The final item you get lets you destroy magic barriers and dispel illusions.
Many aspects of the previous games are carried over to Ascension including the camera system, quick time events, and orbs and I do have one issue with the camera. It zooms out during many battles, I guess to make them feel more cinematic and spectacular, but when it does that, it’s easy lose focus on what’s going on. Other than that, everything is as expected. You’ll have to perform quick time events during certain set pieces and to execute certain enemies. When enemies are defeated, they release orbs. The bigger the combo, the more orbs you earn. They can also be found in chests and acquired by breaking objects. Red orbs are used to power up your Blades, magic, and items. Green orbs replenish health, blue orbs replenish magic, and gold orbs fill up your Rage Meter.
In my opinion, I thought Ascension was quite challenging. Maybe even the most challenging game in the series up to this point. And it’s mainly because of the enemies. There are multiple difficulty modes including one that needs to be unlocked and I played through the game on Normal. You’ll fight familiar and new enemies along with bosses and many of the returning foes have been altered in both appearance and behavior. Cerberus can teleport, Wraiths can summon spirits of themselves, and Sirens will utilize electric attacks. Enemies can be relentless with attacks and some encounters late in the game feel more cheap and frustrating than fun. Mainly because of the pairing of specific enemies. For example, trying to avoid the attacks of multiple Gorgons while trying to dodge electric attacks from multiple Sirens can be a real bitch.
The brutality is one of Ascension’s highlights. The combat is as satisfying as it is because of the brutality and the brutality is as awesome as it is because of the gore effects. And it’s the violent finishers that make the combat feel so rewarding. You don’t just kill an Elephantaur, you cut it’s fucking head open, exposing its brain. You’ll get to rip enemies in half, eviscerate and impale certain foes, and split a Gorgon’s head in half. It’s all very cool. Before you can execute certain foes, you’ll have to complete a minigame where you have to dodge attacks and stab or slash away at them repeatedly. These are cool at first but I felt like they made some battles late in the game drag on.
In typical God of War fashion, Ascension will take you to numerous locations around ancient Greece like a prison, cistern, temple, sewers, and a tower among other areas. The environments are primarily linear with secret areas off to the sides and you’ll do a lot of climbing, swinging, and sliding. You’ll come across chests which house orbs or other items like Gorgon’s Eyes and Phoenix Feathers. And as expected, collecting enough of each permanently increases your health and magic meters. There are some cool set pieces and you will revisit certain areas more than once. The items you’re given let find secrets when you come back to certain areas and make for some creative puzzles. Ascension does autosave frequently and you no longer have to save the game manually. If you look around, you can find artifacts which are like collectibles and grant Kratos special abilities but can only be used after beating the game.
Ascension comes with a multiplayer component but I can’t really dig into it because I didn’t find any matches. There are several multiplayer modes and even a cooperative mode called Trial of the Gods which can also be played solo. That said, the traditional Challenge mode and Combat Arena featured in the previous games are absent from single player in Ascension. However, single player comes with a New Game+ mode where you can replay through the campaign again with different costumes and you can benefit from any of the artifacts you found. Ascension also features a chapter select so you can replay through any already completed chapter.
There’s no denying that God of War: Ascension looked pretty good for the time it released. The presentation is colorful and detailed and the character models look really good. Kratos in particular looks excellent and some of the bosses look really awesome. The outdoor areas showcase some beautiful backgrounds complete with distant mountains, structures, and different atmospheric effects. Ascension is yet another game that conveys a good sense of scale, making you feel like you’re navigating around small portions of massive environments. Kratos’ body will get covered in blood during encounters and successful strikes and blows result in blood spilling onto the ground. The violence is accompanied by a great soundtrack. Songs like “Bound by Blood” and “Temple Carnage” really stood out to me. There’s a lot of great tunes here that compliment the dramatic elements and violence nicely. The sounds of attacks are good and enemies will screech, roar, growl, and make other noises during combat. On the technical side, the frame rate does dip frequently but I did not run into any major bugs.
I had fun with Ascension but I don’t think it reaches the same highs as III. I also think if you skipped the game, you wouldn’t really be missing out on anything important. I do enjoy the new combat mechanics and appreciate the challenge offered. However, I can’t say there’s any surprises here. Ascension is basically what I expected from a God of War game. Violence, bloodshed, and a good time. While I do think the game is balanced well enough overall, I would argue some adjustments could be made to alleviate some of the more frustrating parts. For example, simply removing one or maybe two enemies from certain encounters would do the trick. Luckily, the game is more fun than frustrating and I thought most encounters felt fair.
I would recommend Ascension to fans of the series and the action genre. Even though I like new mechanics, they don’t disguise the fact that Ascension is just more of the same which is both good and bad. Good because if you enjoy the blood soaked violence the series is known for, then you’ll enjoy this. And bad because there’s not enough new ideas to make this feel like a truly fresh experience. But it is fun and if you’re not burnt out on the series yet, definitely check it out.